The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have already put their 24-7 win over Seattle behind them and are focused on their next challenge, which might be the most difficult of the year when the team travels to New Orleans to take on the Saints on Sunday.
These two NFC South division rivals met at Raymond James Stadium on Nov. 22, but it's an outing the Bucs want to forget. New Orleans handed Tampa Bay a 38-7 loss, which was the worst of the 2009 season for the Bucs.
Some don't believe the 2-12 Bucs have much to play for against the 13-1 Saints, but Tampa Bay's players take issue with that notion.
"No one is giving us a chance, but that's kind of how we like it," said Bucs defensive tackle Chris Hovan. "We liked to be with our backs against the wall and nobody giving us a chance. I always love playing these division games. There's something about these rivalries that gets us going.
"Our challenge right now is going up against the number one or number two seeded team in the NFC. If that isn't enough of a challenge to get you up for a game then you're in the wrong sport."
Whether New Orleans is the top-seeded playoff team in the NFC remains to be determined. However, what is known is the Saints currently own the No. 1-ranked offense in the NFL.
The Saints offense, which is averaging 420 yards per game, is led by quarterback Drew Brees, who has completed 69.4 percent of his passes for 4,130 yards and tossed 33 touchdowns and just 11 interceptions in 2009.
Needless to say, Brees has earned the respect of Tampa Bay's defense.
"Drew is probably the MVP of the league, so we're definitely going against the best this Sunday," said Hovan.
New Orleans is coming off its first loss of the season, a 24-17 outing vs. Dallas. Some believe the Saints aren't playing their best football of the season due to that loss at home and the two wins they had before that game, which were decided by a total of six points.
The Bucs don't necessarily believe that based on the film they've watched.
"No, this is just the NFL. Stuff like that happens," said Bucs defensive end Stylez G. White. "They lost against Dallas, but they didn't change anything. Dallas was just better that day. I still think they're playing at a high level. They're a steady team."
One thing that has changed since their last meeting is Tampa Bay's defense. In fact, Bucs head coach Raheem Morris demoted defensive coordinator Jim Bates and took over the defense and brought back the Cover 2, one-gap defensive scheme after the Bucs' 31-point loss to the Saints.
The Bucs are looking forward to finding out how much progress they've actually made since switching defensive schemes, and plan on using the Saints' top-ranked offense as a measuring stick.
"It's definitely a test for the whole team," said Morris. "But whenever you face a Sean Payton-coached offense it's always a test against what you're going to do defensively. We've been highly ranked throughout the years on defense, and they've always managed to put up a lot of yards against us. The games were usually determined on turnovers. My guys are fired up. They want to go out there and play against the best. They have the opportunity to do that this Sunday."
Tampa Bay's defense has been playing better since then. It held Atlanta to 297 yards of total offense earlier this month, and last Sunday in Seattle the Bucs defense created five turnovers.
"We've had success playing the Saints with this defense in the past," said Hovan. "I'm not saying we're going to be successful, but we have a lot of confidence running this defense.
"You can just tell the swagger is coming back to this defense, the way we study, the way we prepare and the way we take the field. The old defense was outdated and didn't work. This defense is what it is; it's true, physical, violent and fast. It's the Tampa 2, and it's what this city has been raised on."
Although they have just two wins and the 25th-ranked defense in the NFL, the Bucs are a confident group heading into New Orleans.
"I think we're more excited to play the Saints again with more of a comfort level on defense," said Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud. "We got dominated in every part of the game defensively last time, but we have more confidence going into this game. They were able to dictate what we did defensively the last time by lining up in certain formations and shifting to get us in certain coverages. This time it will be better for us because they won't be able to do that."
Tampa Bay's offense also has something to prove vs. New Orleans' 22nd-ranked defense, which held the Bucs scoreless after their opening drive in their meeting one month ago. The Bucs offense currently ranks 29th in the NFL, but knows it will have to score points in order to compete with the Saints and keep Brees off the field.
One way to keep Brees off the field is by running the football effectively, which is what Tampa Bay did well in Seattle.
"I think we've improved in a lot of areas since then, especially our running game," said Bucs wide receiver Maurice Stovall. "We showed that last week. Josh [Freeman] has gotten much more comfortable in the pocket, too. We enter this game with a lot of enthusiasm and a lot to prove."
Freeman will be a big factor in determining the outcome of Sunday's game in New Orleans. He had a rough game the first time Tampa Bay played New Orleans. Freeman was 17-of-33 for 126 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. The rookie quarterback also lost a fumble to the Saints' opportunistic and turnover-happy defense. Freeman was asked if this game is a chance to redeem himself against one the top defenses in the NFL, and build some momentum for the Buccaneers entering the offseason.
"Every game we go into with the mentality that it is a must win game," Freeman said. "It'd be great to get a win and try and string something together to finish off this season and try and gain some momentum going into the offseason. That's the standard. We prepare and practice hard and try and beat everybody. New Orleans is a divisional foe. They've had a great season. We are planning on going out and trying to execute our game plan as best we can and do whatever it takes to come out with a win."
The Saints defense, led by coordinator Gregg Williams and linebacker Jonathan Vilma, gave Freeman some confusing defensive fronts and blitzes the first time around. That's one of the things their defense does best, according to Freeman.
"They have a lot of different blitzes," Freeman said. "They got some unorthodox coverages behind those blitzes We just weren't able to get to them. There were a number of plays that we just didn't execute. It would've been a different game if we would've made some plays right before half and we would've gone to the half with a tie ball game or maybe up a score. We weren't able to capitalize and they were."
For the season, Freeman has completed 53.5 percent of his passes for 1,412 yards with nine touchdowns and 14 interceptions. Freeman is coming off leading the Bucs to a victory last Sunday on the road at Seattle. Playing in a loud, hostile road environment last week will be good preparation for Freeman entering the Superdome on Sunday. Plus, Freeman has already seen the New Orleans defense once this season.
"It is an advantage for both teams. They got to know us better playing us the first time," Freeman said. "Obviously we've learned a lot more about them having played them. I definitely think it is going to be a better game than it was last time.
"We started off with a good opening drive and didn't have a whole lot to say the rest of the game. Being able to go back and watch film and see where we made mistakes, I think we'll be a lot more competitive this game."
The Bucs have plenty to play for in New Orleans Sunday. A win over the Saints would capture headlines, but more importantly it would help the Bucs make headway in their attempt to build on 2010 with a strong finish in 2009.
"We're trying to finish the season 3-0," said Bucs left tackle Donald Penn. "It felt good to get the run game going [in Seattle]. We have to have a good offense to keep Brees off the field, plain and simple. We want to show some consistency there this week. We want to look to be spoilers and put stuff on film, otherwise you won't be here. That's enough to play for right there; your job.
"We've played hard all year. That's something Raheem [Morris] brings to the table. Everybody is going to play hard for him no matter what."
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